The Ads That Shaped American Beer Marketing

Adam Houghtaling explores the post-WWII marketing campaign "Beer Belongs" and the influence it still extends over modern beer advertising—from Anheuser-Busch's “Know When to Say When” to Heineken's recent "Dance More, Drink Slow" ads.

The famous “Beer Belongs” ad campaign that rolled out 136 ads between 1945 and 1956 was at the heart of the postwar dawn of beer advertising, and stands as one of the longest running, and successful, alcohol campaigns ever. The ads—which targeted the fresh-faced middle class and focused on wholesome values like freedom and family—helped re-shape beer’s image and re-position it as a natural a part of the American home. As ubiquitous as the tire swing and the butter dish, that six-pack of Pabst at the back of the fridge sits there, in some part, thanks to Beer Belongs.

Beer Belongs portrayed a world of homogenous, Cleaver-esque perfection and beer had a starring role. Whether you were listening to granddad play his ukulele, watching a ballgame on your new TV or… uh… fixing the lawnmower (do not try at home), beer always had a home: yours.

After Prohibition was repealed, the same men who ran big beer prior to 1920 returned to their roles, bringing their long-standing feuds and infighting with them. But by the time the U.S. entered WWII many of the old guard had been replaced by new blood, eager to change the story about beer. The widespread adoption of the refrigerator helped direct beer’s new narrative, which would take it out of the smoke-filled, dimly lit corner bar and into the American home.

Enter: Beer Belongs.

The popular campaign consumed and reflected the American idyll and leaned heavily on values like individualism and being a good neighbor. But at its heart contained a cynicism out of step with the optimistic fantasies they so lovingly portrayed: more sales and brightening the perception of beer were important, but even more important was ensuring that the brewers would never get burned by a return of Prohibition.

Today moderation marketing has largely slipped into the shadows of the industry wide “drink responsibly” campaign, but it still persists.

Henry Stevens, director of the J. Walter Thompson Co., the advertising firm responsible for the Beer Belongs campaign, gave a speech during the 1946 USBF convention, saying, “as beer becomes more traditional in more and more homes…its position becomes increasingly invincible to attack.” USBF President Carl Badenhausen added that twin goals of the campaign were first, to act as a buffer for the “ever-present threat of Prohibition,” and second, “the need for getting a wider social acceptance of beer and ale.”

Pictured above is a scene from the Beer Belongs campaign from 1947: number eight of the “Home Life in America” series titled, “The Boss Comes to Dinner,” painted by John Falter. “In this home-loving land of ours…in this America of kindliness, of friendship, of good-humored tolerance…” the ad begins, “perhaps no beverages are more ‘at home’.”

It was the post-war blooming of the American middle class and beer, the ads suggested, was in every way as much a part of the family as Puddles the dog—a notion expertly parodied by classic MAD artist Will Elder: The kids enjoy full glasses of frothy ale, and there’s Puddles, lapping up a bowlful of beer.

The ad goes on to state that beer “is the kind of beverage Americans like. It belongs—to pleasant living, to good fellowship, to sensible moderation.”

Beer’s rise as “America’s Beverage of Moderation” began in 1943, a year before the end of the war, and continued throughout the Beer Belongs campaign. The notion was later adopted by Anheuser-Busch, both in their 1982 “Know When to Say When” ads and, in the early 1990s, with the “Budweiser Means Moderation” campaign. Today moderation marketing has largely slipped into the shadows of the industry wide “drink responsibly” campaign, but it still persists. In January, Heineken rolled out a global “Dance More, Drink Slow” campaign—The more you dance, the less you drink!—enlisting DJ Armin Van Buuren to help make drinking in moderation “cool” and “an aspirational behavior.”

Sixty years on from Beer Belongs and America—land of the brave, the free… and the Big Gulp—has developed more than its share of moderation baggage. When the former mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, outlawed sugary drinks larger than 16 ounces it was little more than an act of government-supported moderation. It’s a wonder that an average can of Budweiser now has the same 12 ounces it did in 1956. And one has to wonder about the impact the ads may have had on public health. The final year of the long-running campaign, 1956, was the same year the American Medical Association voted to define alcoholism as a disease.

In the years since the end of the Beer Belongs campaign we’ve weathered through Watergate, Vietnam, the assassinations of JFK, RFK, MLK, Jr., Iran-Contra, the crack epidemic and September 11th. We’re far from the confident, righteous country we were in the years immediately following WWII, but there’s a good bet you have a beer—or a case—in the fridge right now, and in some part that’s a well-chilled testament to Beer Belongs.